Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Two Surly Girls in Old Towne Orange

The moment the Rose asked me if I had taken her to “The Twilight Zone,” I feared that I had made a grave error when it came to choosing our destination for the day.

It all started on the 55 Freeway heading north to Orange CountyOld Towne Orange Historic District (about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles; www.cityoforange.org), when a truck in front of us blew its tire and we subsequently ended up with most of the rubber on our car (on the headlight, the hood...you get the picture)! Evidently…this was not a good omen for the forthcoming events of the day.

Once we recovered from the tire mishap, we continued to the Chapman Avenue exit and then headed left toward the old town square of the largest National Historic District in the state of California (dating back to 1888).

The Old Towne Orange Historic District is a one-mile-square area centered around the original plaza, complete with a beautiful fountain and multicolored rose gardens, fully loaded orange tree and additional palm and pepper trees, and inviting benches. The plaza is surrounded by a roundabout with connecting streets that jut out in four directions to reveal numerous dealers of antiques and collectibles, art galleries and restaurants (including the step-back-into-time Watson’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain, established in 1899, which after having a meal at the Rose now affectionately refers to as “the worst restaurant she’s ever eaten at in her entire life”...mostly for roast beef that was akin to eating either cowhide or a shoe, take your pick).

Parking off of a side street would prove to be among the least arduous tasks of the day. The most arduous: trekking through a town we found out that neither of us had the desire to be in for more than 15 minutes...especially in the day's 90-plus-degree temperatures and stifling humidity).

After finishing our overpriced lunch ($25 for a roast beef sandwich, fruit plate and two drinks) at Watson’s, we realized that folks are attracted to the drugstore/soda fountain largely for its ambience, with its vintage signs (think Pepsi-Cola and Carnation Ice Cream) and jukebox, along with unusual finds such as licorice whips, and obviously not for its stellar food and service.

We moved on quickly to the plaza area...or as I like to call it, “a welcome oasis in the center of antique hell.” Here, the Rose had a moment of rare enjoyment on this particular day while becoming enamored with the “high standards” of the surrounding preservation efforts and attention to architectural detail that she thought made the area look very special and loved. She also was fond of the roundabout surrounding the plaza, which she said reminded her of a traditional European town center.

Surveying our surroundings, we chose North Glassell Street for our main “mooch” (i.e. British term for look around). We popped into the women’s apparel and accessory shop Fresh Produce (109 N. Glassell), where things were looking promising as the Rose found plenty of good-quality items that fit her atypical length and size. However, her mood would soon dissipate following a delightful stop to the next spot on our tour.

The Gallery on Glassell (115 N. Glassell, www.galleryonglassell.com)—a funky mix of art and gourmet food—was hands down our favorite foray of the day. Lucky to find owner Jim Hathcock (pictured below) on the premises, we asked him to tell us about his unusual place. Turns out gourmet food is an art form for Hathcock, who started his business 14 years ago in a 100-year-old building as an art gallery showing landscapes and lifestyle scenes from all over the world created mostly by California artists.

Three years ago, when he came to the realization that galleries can often intimidate some people, Hathcock added a food department showcasing Italian, Spanish and French gourmet items to make the space more warm and inviting to visitors.

“There also was a lack of places to buy the things you need to make meals great,” says Hathcock, who uses importers with a California presence to stock his shelves with everything from Spanish cookbooks, paella and fully cooked chorizo (with lean cuts of beef and pork and lots of paprika) to Italian-made wheat pasta that has not been genetically engineered to duck confit, duck fat (“to make real French fries,” he says)…but no foie gras, which recently was banned from California restaurants and gourmet shops.

There’s still time to catch the gallery’s summer acoustic guitar series, held every Sunday, from June through the end of August, from 8-10 p.m. Not only does it feature an extremely talented 17-year-old student of Santa Anas Orange County School for the Arts on acoustic guitar, but guests also can relax and partake in samples of Jones Coffees made in nearby Pasadena.

By the way, if you have some time during your visit to Old Towne Orange, be sure to continue down North Glassell to Chapman University. There you can view the campus-wide Chapman University Collections, comprising everything from Holocaust-related artifacts to the contemporary Phyllis and Ross Escalette Permanent Collection of Art (www.modernluxury.com/riviera-orange-county/articles/museum-without-walls).

Leaving the delightful gallery/food shop, this is the point where it all went downhill…fast. What I failed to mention to the Rose (and for this I will be forever reminded) is that Old Town Orange also is considered “The Antique Capital of Southern California.”

While both of us are great appreciators of history and its significance, we both seem to have a shared aversion to what the Rose calls estate sale finds being labeled as antiques. Perhaps its the Rose’s memories of being dragged through antique shop after antique shop after antique shop (I’m stopping here, although she went on for another five minutes) by her female family members that has caused her to have such disdain of “old household goods being called antiques.” Likewise, the Peach has been inundated with her fair share of  “finds” from her mother’s and sister’s antique booths one too many times (no offense, to my mother and sister; it’s just not my thing).

“I mean how many blipping antique stores can you have in one place?!?!?!,” the Rose asked incredulously.

So...after trying our best to enjoy one of the said antique shops (both immediately feeling antsy and a tad woozy from the smell of rust and dingy drapes), we rushed from the horrid heat and humidity and the “ever-enclosing” antique shops back to the safe haven (and 10 degree cooler) environs of Laguna Beach and the beachside Starbucks.

The Rose’s entire summation of the trip to Old Towne Orange: “We came, we saw and we will never return.”
Ahhhhh…there’s no place like home.